The lymphatic system is an extremely important system in the body that a lot of people do not even know exists. This article gives a brief outline about this important and integral system of the human body.
The lymphatic system is the unseen protector of the body, ensuring smooth circulation of fluids and protecting the body from illness. The medical world started studying this body system in the early years of the twentieth century. Although some understanding was gained, medical treatments for the lymphatic system did not appear until some time later.
What is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is a system that circulates around the body and is made up of vessels and nodes. Essentially, the system is a network of vessels, nodes and organs that combine to create a transportation system for fluids around the body.
Key parts of the lymphatic system that you may already be aware of are the tonsils, thymus gland and spleen, but it also includes lymph nodes and vessels.
The vessels carry fluid (lymph) to and from areas of the body to ensure regulation of fluids and protection from foreign bodies. The nodes hold a type of white blood cell at various areas of the body and ensure fluid keeps moving forward along the vessels, never backward.
What Does the Lymphatic System Do?
The system has several functions, including:
- Removing interstitial fluid from tissue in the body;
- Removing fats and fatty acids away from the digestive system;
- Transporting white blood cells to the skeletal system.
Overall, the lymphatic system defends the body as part of the immune system ensuring the body does not succumb to bacteria, virus and fungal infection.
Removing Interstitial Fluid:
Interstitial fluid is a fluid that is found around the cells of tissue and supports the transportation of required materials into the cells and also removing waste away.
On average, a person has 11 litres of this fluid, and the lymphatic system helps maintain the quality and level of interstitial fluid in the body by carrying excess interstitial fluid into the blood stream for removal.
Removing Fats and Fatty Acids:
The lymphatic system helps by absorbing fats and fatty acids then transporting them away from the digestive system. It does this by carrying it away as chyle.
Transporting White Blood Cells:
The immune system is called into action when attacked by a foreign body. The signal comes for the white blood cells to surround and attack the foreign body, then the lymphatic system carries the white blood cells to and from the bones into the blood stream.
Problems with the Lymphatic System
A major problem that can occur when there are issues with the lymphatic system is Lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is the name given to a lymphatic system that is not working correctly and is not transporting fluid around the body as it should. The main symptom of lymphoedema is a build up of liquid in the body tissues causing localised swelling in the areas of concern, often the legs and ankles. This can be painful and also means the body is not functioning as it should, and so could be open to infection.
Treatment for the Lymphatic System
There is one type of treatment of the lymphatic system. This treatment is called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) which is a massage technique that gently assists the lymphatic circulation to improve. The patient should start to see a decrease in swelling as the lymphatic system starts the removal of the fluid build-up.
Manual Lymphatic Drainage treatment usually involves multiple sessions, dependent on the amount of swelling involved. The process usually takes around 60 to 90 mins, and is carried out through a gentle massage (no oil is used) which includes a gentle, rhythmic pumping action to stimulate the lymphatic system into action.
This is a specialist treatment and should be carried out by a certified professional trained in Manual Lymphatic Drainage.
Image source: Gray, H. (1918). Anatomy of the human body. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.